Op-ed by Peter Beinart, published in The Forward on November 19, 2018.
It turns out that Ilhan Omar, who this month became the first Somali American and the first Muslim refugee ever elected to Congress, modulates her views to fit her audience.
In other words, she’s a politician.
In February of last year, before she launched her congressional campaign, Omar praised the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
In a speech opposing an anti-BDS bill in the Minnesota State legislature, Omar said she didn’t “want to be part of a vote that limits the ability of people to fight towards justice and peace.” She also compared the BDS movement to people who “engage[d] in boycotts” of apartheid South Africa.
A few months before election day, however, at a candidate forum in a local synagogue, Omar changed her tune. “The BDS movement,” she declared, was “not helpful in getting that two-state solution.”
She added, “I think the particular purpose for [BDS] is to make sure that there is pressure, and I think that pressure really is counteractive. Because in order for us to have a process of getting to a two-state solution, people have to be willing to come to the table and have a conversation about how that is going to be possible and I think that stops the dialogue.”
Then, last week, Omar recalibrated again.
Her campaign told the website Muslim Girl that “Ilhan believes in and supports the BDS movement, and has fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized. She does however, have reservations on the effectiveness of the movement in accomplishing a lasting solution.”
When a local Jewish journalist asked about the apparent contradiction, Omar insisted she hadn’t changed her views: “I believe and support the BDS movement and have fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalized,” she explained. “I do, however, have reservations on [the] effectiveness of the movement in accomplishing a lasting solution. Which is what I believe I said at the forum.”
It’s not what she said at the forum. Omar appears to support the BDS movement with reservations.
In the heat of the campaign, in front of a Jewish audience, she left out the support part.
That’s unfortunate. Politicians should be rigorously honest even when it means telling people things they don’t want to hear. Omar didn’t do that.
She’ll be right at home in Congress.
The argument equating BDS with anti-Semitism isn’t new. In the organized American Jewish community, it’s a cliche. Omar’s case offers another opportunity to explain why it’s wrong.
The claim that the BDS movement is inherently anti-Semitic can be divided into two parts.
The first concerns the movement’s means and the second concerns its ends.
Argument number one is that it’s anti-Semitic to single out Israel for boycotts unless you’re also boycotting every other government that commits equal — or graver — human rights abuses.
In a formulation popularized by Natan Sharansky, holding Israel to a “double standard” is one of the primary features of contemporary anti-Semitism.
The problem with this argument is that anyone who engages in boycotts is likely guilty of double standards.
There are an infinite number of injustices in the world, and even if one could rank them in order of severity, very few people choose their causes that way.
More often, they protest injustices that have particular meaning to them.
In the 1970s, for instance, American Jewish groups boycotted the Bolshoi Ballet when it visited the United States in order to protest the Soviet Union’s treatment of Russian Jews.
Were those Jewish groups guilty of a double standard? Absolutely.
However bad Moscow’s anti-Semitism, it paled in comparison to the crimes committed in the 1970s by Uganda’s Idi Amin or Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
But the Jews who protested the Bolshoi weren’t bigots. They simply had a greater personal investment in fighting one form of injustice than in fighting another.
A similar logic applies to many supporters of BDS.
Look at Canary Mission, the website that charges American students and faculty who support BDS with “hatred” of “Jews,” and you’ll notice something: a vastly disproportionate number of the “haters” are Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims.
That’s not surprising. BDS is a Palestinian movement.
It dates from 2005, when Palestinian civil society groups made a public “call” for people around the world to boycott Israel.
Since Palestinians are an Arabic speaking and mostly Muslim population, it’s entirely predictable that Palestinian, Arab and Muslim Americans would find that call particularly compelling — just as American Jews were particularly drawn to boycotts that targeted Soviet oppression of Jews.
It’s no coincidence that the members of Congress who support BDS are Omar, a Muslim American, and Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American.
But why, the double-standards-equals-anti-Semitism-crowd might respond, aren’t they boycotting Saudi Arabia, Syria or Iran?
Don’t those regimes oppress Arabs and Muslims too?
In fact, Omar does support boycotting Saudi Arabia.
In general, however, the reason those regimes have not elicited BDS-style movements is simple: There’s been no mass call for BDS from inside those countries themselves.
In Iran, for instance, dissidents mostly oppose US sanctions.
People don’t generally boycott countries unless the people suffering inside those countries ask them to.
It was the same in the 1980s.
Why was there a global movement to boycott apartheid South Africa but not Amin’s Uganda or Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire? In large part because the African National Congress called for a boycott and the political opposition in Uganda and Zaire did not.
There’s a second argument for why BDS equals anti-Semitism, which doesn’t concern the boycott itself but rather than goals the boycotters espouse.
In the 2005 statement that launched BDS, Palestinian civil society groups called for boycotting Israel until it cedes control of the territories it conquered in 1967 (the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights), offers “full equality” to Palestinian citizens living inside Israel’s 1967 lines, and allows the return of Palestinian refugees.
Critics argue that the second and third criteria would make it impossible for Israel to remain a Jewish state. And they’re probably right.
The BDS movement doesn’t officially oppose the existence of a Jewish state, but some of its most prominent advocates do.
This is why I oppose BDS. (I do support boycotting settlements in the West Bank). Its goals are inconsistent with my own. But opposing the movements’ goals and calling them anti-Semitic are very different things.
There’s nothing inherently bigoted about opposing a people’s desire for an ethnically based state.
In recent decades, after all, many peoples have demanded their own state: Kurds, Basques, Catalans, Kashmiris, Scots, Quebecois and Igbos, not to mention Palestinians.
Foreign observers generally weigh these claims against the alternatives: Would a Basque state be economically viable? What would happen if the Kurds seceded from Iraq? Can Scots secure their individual and communal rights within the United Kingdom?
Underlying these pragmatic arguments is the recognition that an ethnic majority state is only one of the varieties of legitimate options in today’s world.
If it’s not — if every people has the right to its own country — then why isn’t opposing a Palestinian state as bigoted as opposing a Jewish one?
The acid test of bigotry isn’t whether you support a particular people’s right to a state of its own. It’s whether you support that people’s right to enjoy citizenship, free movement, due process and the right to vote in any state.
It’s not anti-Kurdish to oppose a Kurdish state but it is anti-Kurdish to deny Kurds both their own country and equal treatment in the countries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, in which they live.
Similarly, what makes Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s political vision anti-Semitic isn’t their opposition to a Jewish state per se. It’s their insistence that Jews live in a single state as political and religious inferiors.
Naftali Bennett’s political vision is bigoted against Palestinians for the same reason.
He would both deny them their own state and permanently deny them citizenship in the one state in which Jews and Palestinians both live.
Critics might respond that there’s something fundamentally different about dismantling an ethnically based state like Israel and opposing the creation of one.
By that standard, the Jews who opposed Zionism in the early twentieth century weren’t anti-Semites but the Jews who oppose it today are.
This logic requires viewing the Satmar Rebbe — who this summer vowed to “continue to fight God’s war against Zionism” — as an anti-Semite, which is awkward.
But it’s incoherent for other reasons as well.
Take the case of apartheid South Africa.
It was an ethnically based state; the only one in the world built around Afrikaner identity.
Yet dismantling it didn’t constitute anti-Afrikaner bigotry.
My point isn’t that Israel is an apartheid state.
Inside the green line, I don’t think it is.
But the apartheid example shows that it’s possible to rescind an ethnic group’s self-determination without being bigoted against it.
Ethnically based states are neither inherently good nor inherently bad. What matters, ultimately, is what kind of government best protects the rights of all the people in a given space.
Can BDS supporters and anti-Zionists be anti-Semitic?
Of course. So can BDS opponents and Zionists.
Some white nationalists, for instance, embrace Israel precisely because it gives the Diaspora Jews they want to get rid of somewhere to go.
But the argument that Ilhan Omar is anti-Semitic because she supports BDS makes no sense.
In the past, such arguments haven’t needed to make sense.
The whole point of branding BDS as anti-Semitic has been to quash a conversation about the injustices that gave rise to BDS in the first place.
The election of Omar and Tlaib is a sign that this conversation may finally be breaking out in Washington DC.
It’s long overdue.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York.